Pages from a Nottingham Notebook

HAROLD DRASDO, who lives in Nottingham and teaches English, was born in Bradford in 1930. He has contributed to several issues of ANARCHY and wrote the latest guide to Lakeland rock-climbs.

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 19, 2018

GEORGE ORWELL REMARKS SOMEWHERE THAT WEAPONS DEMONSTRATE the characters as well as the technologies of their makers: the nuclear bomb, he says, fits the totalitarian state; the selective longbow might be a libertarian weapon. Certainly it was in the name of liberty that Robin Hood annoyed the keepers of Nottingham Castle. But that legendary figure, his exploits recounted all over England by the time of Richard II, was a dangerous hero for the common people and in the later tales the Establishment subdued him with a knighthood. If you can’t beat them, buy them.

Three hundred years later, Nottingham saw in reality an act of sabotage provoked by the threat of a more significant betrayal. The Civil War began in August 1642 when the king raised his standard here and called his supporters to arms. Locally there was no enthusiasm, the standard ominously blew down, and he moved away; in fact the town was held by the Roundheads throughout the war. But, the new society achieved, some of those who had fought for it did not care much for the form they saw it taking. The resourceful Colonel Hutchinson (one of the Regicides—he died in imprisonment in Sandown Castle) distrusting Cromwell’s “poisonous ambition” secretly procured an order from the Council of State for the demolition of the castle. The Commonwealth would need no fortresses, he assured Cromwell, when the latter 1earnt of its destruction. But the Lord Protector was furious; it seems he liked castles; he could have found a use for it still.

Castles sprang up again like leaders. Within thirty years a new building, less military in style, had been raised on the same site. It stood through the stormy years of rioting for food and work which culminated in the Luddite troubles; until, in 1831, the property then of the notorious fourth Duke of Newcastle, it was sacked and burned by the desperate populace when the news of the defeat of the Reform Bill reached the city.

But even this was not the end. Another castle dominates the city today, a symbol, if you like, of the protean shapes of authority. For, very appropriately, it serves now as an art gallery and museum as if to exhibit the extent of the state’s claims; to bear witness to the fact that the art of government includes the government of art; to remind men of the municipality’s involvement in every province of their lives—taking their taxes and caring for their aesthetic appetites not simply with its selection of paintings but also with its Watch Committee.

How deep does this interference go? And how effective is it? What chance is there, in a fairly typical provincial city, of access to radical ideas in politics or to new disturbances in the arts? … Well, here are a couple of scenes from provincial life. Firstly, the browsers in Nottingham City Library roused by the unnecessarily loud voice of a young librarian: “,Yes, sir, we have a copy of Tropic of Cancer but it’s not kept on the shelves. It’s in the reference section. You can look at it there if you want to.” The poor, sick, shabby old man did not like the attention his enquiry had won him. He crept out whilst the decent citizens watched him with amusement or distaste … From public service to private society. The Film Study Group of the Cooperative Film Society saw Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite and discussed censorship afterwards. The speakers congratulated themselves on British liberty and mentioned their pleasure at having seen Vigo’s classic without interference. But the words that the sub-title said to the headmaster in English did not adequately represent the words that Tabard said to him in French. “Je vous dis merde!”—the very expression which was one of the roots of the film to the director, whose father had used it to headline a celebrated article in La Guerre Sociale and had subsequently spent two years in prison for his polemics. A trivial point, perhaps? To me it seemed to help bury the bitter actualities behind the film, half-buried already by time, apathy and ignorance.

These two incidents pertain exactly to the two sorts of cultural enterprises which the city offers. Scanning briefly the public or commercial facilities there are seven cinemas in the city centre and as many again within two or three miles. There is the New Playhouse, open since December but with a history that would fill a book; it’s not possible to describe it or evoke its atmosphere in a few words; it promises well for the future, the actors having already had a fracas with the city elders at a reception in the Council House. It isn’t likely that this excitement will upset the Theatre Royal or affect it even remotely. Further, the city is provided with an impressive central library (I haven’t yet asked if a list of unshelved objectionable fiction is issued with the other subject lists); an incomparable bookshop (there is no serious competitor with which to compare it) having five departments and a staff of more than a hundred; three art galleries; the Albert Hall.

To supplement our fixed assets we have the occasional cultural windfall. Centre 42 passed through some time ago, selling a fraction of its eight thousand poundsworth of entertainment: plays, exhibitions, folksong, jazz. Christopher Logue, with a fetching bravado, read his poems to the Raleigh workers in their own canteen. On the subject of poetry it is interesting to see the audiences John Neville’s jazz and poetry sessions draw. The enthusiasm is astonishing. All these young people who have learnt somewhere (where?) that all this Kenneth Patchen is the right thing: they’re not sure where it’s leading but they’re determined to be sent. Perhaps, though, it is Neville’s person rather than Patchen’s poetry that attracts them. Any kind of musical event is well patronised. The Sadlers Wells production of Peter Grimes gave immense pleasure and CND’s Remembrance Day folksong concert brought in a surprisingly large audience.

In an ambivalent position, offering lectures to the public but built by isolationists, there is the university. Culture has roots in cash, said Lawrence, and this institution sprang “out of the noble loot/ derived from shrewd cash-chemistry/by good Sir Jesse Boot.” From the northeast the pedestrian reaches the main buildings through pleasant rolling parkland but he will be soaked to the skin if it’s raining. On the south, the shortest approach by public transport, these buildings are defended by an ornamental lake into which, on the darkest winter nights, strangers attempting to take the obvious short-cut are said occasionally to plunge.

These are the public enterprises. But, on reflection, it is clear that the dedication of a quite small number of people provides amenities of almost equal significance; through the agency, I mean, of various amateur groups. The prop for most of these is the Co-operative Society with its excellent Arts Theatre and Educational Centre. The Arts Theatre’s productions appeal to a very wide audience and include popular comedy, opera, and occasional revues or musicals as well as serious drama; in addition to the dramatic group they have an orchestra, a choral and operatic group, a tape recording club, junior groups, and so on—sometimes they work in liaison. I’ve mentioned the film society already. If you attend regularly the annual subscription gives you each showing at less than two shillings. For this you see, together with interesting supporting features, the classics you’ve missed. The level is that of similar societies all over Britain and programmes during the last two years have presented Les Jeux Interdits, The Red Badge of Courage and La Notte; on occasion there is something really startling and unexpected—Kobayashi’s No Greater Love shook me. Regrettably, the special film series has collapsed; the really seminal films draw about thirty from a population of 300,000.

The most ambitious of all the purely amateur ventures seems to be the Nottingham Theatre Club. Here are some of its productions of the last three seasons: Durrenmatt’s The Visit; Euripides’ The Bacchae; Donleavy’s The Ginger Man; O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers; Arnold Wesker’s I’m Talking About Jerusalem; Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi; Ibsen’s Pillars of Society; Brecht’s Chalk Circle. And all these splendidly produced and well attended. No compromise and nothing provincial about this selection; these plays may be of unequal status but taken as a whole they make no slanted statement about the condition of man. They reflect the club’s admirable policy: to show plays not previously performed· in the city; to pay attention to unusual or experimental drama; to remember the classical drama as a standard. The O’Neill play was, remarkably, the first amateur performance in England; and all of John Whiting’s plays except his last had their first provincial performances here. What more can one ask? Certainly, a part of our cultural freedom comes to us through those who shape the enduring traditions of groups like this.

Considering all this activity it can hardly be said that the cinema or theatregoer is badly served here. What about the man who wants to read? Obviously, his first task is to penetrate the thought barrier of the mass media. Look at the national press: coerced by the pressures of advertisers; always forced into gestures in order to maintain or increase sales; always aggregating, the controlling groups becoming more and more powerful, less and less in number; obliged to inflate or exclude items of news to make so many pages of print; squeezing out minority opinion; gagged by the seventeen D notices standing at this moment; provided with a lower stratum so exuberantly irresponsible that it serves excellently to make the “quality” press appear, by contrast, as sufficiently serious and disinterested. These tendencies and forces serve different ends and sometimes negate each other. But, in general, public opinion is so conditioned that there is rarely a need to create specific defences against revolutionary ideas; they are burned out like meteorites entering the atmosphere.

Reading, in fact, can be quite expensive. If, to take the nearest instance, you are developing an interest in libertarian ideas, you will find little available in the city periodical form. You must get what you want by subscription and you will spend. time in learning slowly what is currently published. Your initial access to this literature is probably, in any case, by chance; not many copies of Anarchy reach Nottingham; does anyone here read Liberation or Dissent? The same is true of literary magazines. In London you will see how much doesn’t arrive in the Midlands. (You must go to Paris to find, the books that only pass Dover in hiding.) The difficulties are caused by the fact that reading is a solitary activity and the reader need not necessarily co-operate with his fellows. But clearly there is a place here for mutual aid. Private film societies and dramatic groups are free, in the first instance, of the restrictions of censorship. A co-operative library takes a small step in this direction in that jointly members can afford to buy books which have not been proceeded against because they are priced for protection. No-one wishes to own all the journals and books which he would like to glance through but which the public library cannot manage to cover for reasons of finance or space, or which it must conceal so as not to incur the displeasure of certain powerful gangs. Before. the enactment of the first public libraries legislation, industrial centres like Nottingham had a variety of reading societies and mechanics’ and artisans’ libraries; even today small groups of people sharing the same interest co-operate in this way naturally; but it is the individuals who are outside these groups and who are groping for information alone and uncertainly who need these services. At present, an interest in libertarian ideas takes men haphazardly, stirred by impulses of attraction or repulsion towards aspects of modern political and social life or towards events or gestures in history or literature. We must try to advertise our belief in a coherent ideological position at the intersection of the lines of thought to which these impulses give rise.

Of course, a co-operative library might go further than this to end its literary malnutrition and here the Watch Committee jerks itself awake. But this operates both ways the Watch Committee ought to engage our attention too. Individually, we learn so little about it without tedious and time-consuming research. Some of its decisions are, it is true, easily accessible in the monthly Civic News. It records refusals of permission for the screening of films without always naming the films concerned. It sends some of its members on BBFC courses of censorship—what do they tell them there? It blandly approves a proposal “to construct a Civil Defence sub-Area Control Centre underneath the proposed new Police Station at Church Lane; Bulwell …” (Italics mine; an expensive alteration). It considers items “which must of necessity be dealt with in confidence.” It performs, also, a host of socially essential tasks and there’s the rub. We get these services in a package deal with no provision for opting out. It is a model of the national situation. We pay for hospitals, schools and better roads and learn later that our enterprising representatives have bought us a few shares in hydrogen bombs too, whether we will or no.

Nottingham’s Watch Committee is not, as far as I know, one of the really paranoic ones. If it has shown any signs of prurience or imbecility like that of Bradford’s some months ago, I have missed them. We do not resist it solely because it might meddle with something of great literary or artistic merit for we know very well that most of the items it might object to are contemptible or unpleasant: it challenges us simply, as Everest challenged Mallory, “because it is there.” We know that the end of censorship must lead, in the context of our economy, to a flood of rubbish—one of the component awarenesses of our censorship is the knowledge that the profit-motive makes men bad—but this would still be less disgusting than the existence of censorship. For myself, I can manage without it; it would be impertinent of me to recommend it for anyone else.

Actually, the question is broader than this. The edges of what we are allowed to know are of the utmost significance. (Wittgenstein: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.“) No man, anywhere, can validly generalise about government or culture without making the test of logic: he must examine what he is permitted to know in comparison with what he is forbidden to read or discover. The first article of the Manifesto for the Flagless Man says—read anything you like: any government, party, religion, philosophy, group or person obstructing you must be resisted in proportion to the power exercised. And the academic question of a world without censorship? Attention would have to be directed on to two teaching topics: the recognition of the portentous gap between word and act, idea and reality; and the clear definition of personal responsibility in every imaginable situation.

Perhaps, for every Watch Committee we ought to have a Counterwatch Group, excluding those with political affiliations, having the function of observing and investigating the Committee’s more undemocratic activities. A Counterwatch Club, if you like, offering the services of mutual assistance already suggested and serving as a focus for libertarian ideas and activities. Here is my copy of the Kama Kala, a handsome volume of Indian erotic sculpture, price £7 17s. 6d. and worth at least five shillings; it ought to be out as a paperback but the law might not like it; let me know if you would like to borrow it. Shall we hold a Counterwatch Week? Produce a booklet with a wide selection of good unexceptionable passages from banned books, simply to remind men that more English has been written than has been published in England? It might be possible to stage an exhibition of items which have been ruled not permissible at different places in Britain in the Welfare State era, crediting each piece with place, date and available reasons, and staging the whole without risk to the sponsors by blacking out the relevant passages in books, clothing tastefully any statutory likely to offend and so forth. The exhibition might travel the country whilst different groups examined the responses of their moral guardians. It is a pity that the emancipated man expresses himself so seldom. The Home Office apologised recently to Queen Frederica of Greece and to the Cuban Ambassador for its lack of control over its subjects. Did any of us think to apologise to Lenny Bruce for our lack of control over the Home Office? That would have been a gracious gesture and William Ayscough might have made it. Nottingham’s first printer, he was not, it would seem, a man who would have consorted well with our servile generation. His wife shared his radical opinions and she carried on his business after his death; we find her in 1728 in the Records of the Borough of Nottingham summoned “ffor printing and publishing Severall Scandalous and indecent expressions … tending to bring the Kings Ministers of State into contempt.”

But perhaps this article has become too strident in tone and considers the amenities of the city in too narrow a sense. We have a lot of bingo here. Discussing Eliot’s Notes Toward the Definition of Culture several years ago in the Kenyon Review, an American critic said: “Anyone who wants to meditate about the history of culture would do well to walk any afternoon in the vicinity of Times Square. Where do all these crowds come from? How do they fill their day? What is to be done with them?” You might ask these questions in Nottingham of an evening. A lively city with its people conspicuously bent on pleasure. See them in Slab Square on Saturday night, magnificent little girls and carefree young men, the creatures of Alan Sillitoe-land: Stiletto-land, you may think, considering the well-heeled, young women and the knifing posters with which the police have decorated the pubs. Before the drinking starts the crowds wander about the speakers in the square, reminding you of Chesterton’s Englishmen: “and some men talked of freedom/ But England talked of ale.”Admittedly, the pubs are the best in England; I feel a rich sense of tradition in drinking in “The Trip to Jerusalem” (cut into the base of the solid rock on which the Castle stands) and reflecting on the eight centuries of drinkers who have preceded me, back to the men impressed into the Crusades. But at the end of the evening there is an element amongst the crowds of which no city might be proud. Have there been many strikes like our busmen’s walkout last year?—a protest at repeated assaults upon conductors on the late night buses. Is it for these young people that we demand more freedom? Possibly, we have to say: it is for anyone who wants it. They didn’t, in any case, get these ideas from Lawrence or Nabokov or Miller—not even from Der Spiegel or the Spies for Peace. This sort of behaviour is taught nowhere in the pages which caused such storms. They learnt it somehow from the newspapers and from the pressures of the incompletely affluent society; they are depraved already, although, perhaps, they hardly read books at all.

“What is to be done with them?” One direct answer was given by another American, Paul Goodman, writing in a recent issue of this journal about the more serious delinquency problems of New York. “The cure for their violent sexuality is to allow them guiltless sex. The cure for their defiance is to teach them their real enemies to fight. The cure for their foolish activism is to provide them with a world that has worthwhile tasks.” And how are we to recognise these unspecified enemies? someone may ask; isn’t this the thing on which men can never agree? … If attention is paid to the first and last of Goodman’s recommendations the enemies will identify themselves. Behind every juvenile delinquent stand the forces of senile delinquency.